Myth Busting the Middle East

July 7, 2016

We asked Linda, ISEP Coordinator at  American University of Sharjah, to dispel some misconceptions people may have about the Middle East.

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Photo by Zane R., who studied abroad at American University of Sharjah

Myth: The Middle East is unsafe

Reality: Yes, some of the countries within the Middle East are unstable or at war. The United Arab Emirates is not one of those countries. I have lived here for almost 10 years now, moving here with my husband and two teenage daughters from Wellington, New Zealand – and we have never felt safer than we do walking the streets of the United Arab Emirates. There are very low levels of violent crime here and very low levels of property crime.  To my knowledge, the United Arab Emirates has never experienced a terrorist attack on its soil and we have not experienced school shootings. Probably the biggest danger people face here is on the roads, as the driving tends to be pretty bad. But the government has recently been focusing a lot of effort on bringing road safety under control. And, you can at least rest easy that the crazy drivers are not very likely to be under the influence of illegal substances or over the alcohol limit, as the United Arab Emirates takes a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and to drinking and driving. The United Arab Emirates Government is all about business as usual – they do not put up with any trouble makers, and if anyone puts a toe out of line that way, they will be quickly deported. As with all big cities, people are wise to use their good judgment and caution, but the bottom line is my experience has been that the United Arab Emirates is a very safe and stable place to live, work and play!


Myth: Women have to cover and are not allowed to drive

Reality: That may be true in Saudi Arabia, but it isn’t true here in the United Arab Emirates. Women here do not have to cover, and they most certainly drive. The United Arab Emirates does have a dress code — some Emirates feel more strongly about this than others, but all Emiratis appreciate it when visitors to their countries adhere to these basic standards. Both men and women are expected to wear clothing that covers their shoulders and to below their knees. Men should not go shirtless in public, and women should not wear low cut, clingy or transparent clothing. The idea here is to be modest and respectful – it’s not that difficult once you get used to it.


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Myth: Women in the United Arab Emirates cover due to male domination

Reality:  This may be true for some women, sure, but actually, this issue is much more complex than that. One point to consider is that Emiratis actually represent a minority within their own country, making up only approximately 18 percent of the population.  It is important to Emiratis to identify and reflect their heritage and culture, and both men and women take great pride in wearing their National Dress. Both men and women wear head coverings of some sort as part of their National Dress, and the styles reflect historical, geographical, climate-related and other realities. For example, the United Arab Emirates can be prone to sand and dust storms, and when those occur, head coverings suddenly become very useful indeed.


Myth: Everyone in the United Arab Emirates is filthy rich

Reality: Actually, Emiratis in general are pretty well off by most standards, although some who live in more rural areas still live fairly modestly. However, as mentioned previously, Emiratis only make up about 18 percent of the population in the United Arab Emirates, and in actuality, the population is extremely multicultural and diverse. It also tends to be rather class-oriented, and so you do get the full range of people from those who are struggling to make ends meet, to those who live a very luxurious lifestyle.


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Myth: The United Arab Emirates is all about shopping

Reality: The United Arab Emirates does have some pretty amazing and massive shopping malls — and these malls involve so much more than just shopping.  They contain world-class restaurants, theaters, indoor amusement parks, skating rinks, ski resorts, hotels and more. Truth be told, in the very hot summer weather, the United Arab Emirates shopping malls provide residents with a way to get out of their houses, stretch their legs, be entertained and more — and escape the heat.

But, there is so much more to do in the United Arab Emirates than just visit the mall. How about a Desert Safari, including dune bashing, sand boarding, belly dancing, camp fires or wonderful meals out under the stars. Or you can take dinner cruise on a traditional Dhow around the Dubai or Sharjah creeks and lagoons. Enjoy a day long Dhow Cruise up in the Musandam Peninsula in Oman, where you can race the dolphins, snorkel and see a huge variety of colorful tropical fish and reefs, and see the gorgeous stark Hajar Mountains of Musandam reflected against the gorgeous azure waters of the Gulf. Visit the many world-class museums on heritage, culture and Islamic Civilization. Reflect in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Visit the new Louvre on Saadiyat Island. Go to one of the many amusement parks, water parks, or the Al Ain Zoo. Try deep sea fishing in the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean or the Gulf of Oman? Or if you insist on shopping, perhaps you’d like to shop in the many old and traditional souks in the old sections of town, and spend the day sipping tea and bargaining like crazy for that beautiful Persian/Turkish/Afghani rug. You will never be bored exploring the many different faces of this region. The question is not what to do, but how to do it all during the time you have available!

Thank you for sharing your insight with us, Linda! Learn more about American University of Sharjah on the ISEP website and experience part of the Middle East for yourself!   

Related post: ISEP Student Stories: Sara Discovers Middle Eastern Culture Through Photography

An earlier version of this post was originally shared July 30, 2014.

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